Monday, January 17, 2011

Respect for the land and campesinos

I usually read about two or three books at the same time. And so I often find myself in the middle of several books and sometimes put off finishing one or two books. And so it has happened that I have finished four books in the last two weeks – only one of which I began this month, all of which help me deepen my understanding of my own ministry. They all help me deepen my love for the land and for those who work it, the campesinos, and deepen my commitment to be with them in their struggles, respecting their wisdom and listening to them.


The first book I finished was Paolo Freire’s ¿Extensión o comunicación? La concientización en el medio rural. I read it in a Spanish translation (from the Portuguese) but an English translation is available in Education for Critical Consciousness. Freire is suspicious of most Latin American agricultural extension programs since they often come with ready-made solutions.


In one passage, in my meager translation, Freire reflects Socrates:

…to educate and be educated in the practice of liberty is the task of those who know that they know little – therefore, they know that they know a little and so can get to know more – in dialogue with those who almost always think that they know nothing in order that these people, transforming their thinking that they know nothing into knowing that they know a little, can equally, know more.

In my workshops I usually begin by noting that our study is a joint effort and that we learn together. I also mention that they can be my teachers, especially in regard to their language. There are many cases where I have learned a lot from my discussions with them.


The second book I finished was Father Francis Sullivan’s Indian Freedom: The Cause of Bartolomé de Las Casas (1984-1566). Dominican bishop Bartolomé de las Casas was a defender of the indigenous people in the Americas, not only while living in the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America, and South America, but advocating for them in the court of Spain. He was a prolific writer, mixing vivid accounts of the massacres and human rights violations against the indigenous, with philosophical and theological arguments citing Aristotle, the Church Fathers, and Thomas Aquinas, especially in his devastating article on greed.


He is an early advocate of freedom. In a tract on royal power he wrote, “The power, jurisdiction of rulers exist only to procure the common good of their people, and this power, jurisdictions implies no interferences with liberty, nor any suspension of it.”


But what comes across most in this collection of his writings is his deep love and appreciation of the native peoples. He finds them – “pagan” though they be – as in many ways superior to the Spanish so-called “Christians” whose real god is gold and whose treatment of the native peoples is devastatingly cruel. The native peoples are human – while the Spaniards are a scandal to Christianity.


So too today much of what passes for Christianity is a scandal for the poor. Many people here are scandalized by the support that Cardinal Rodriguez seemed to give to the coup. I too am scandalized by those “missionaries” and “brigades” that come here supposedly to help, but really come with their own agendas and seldom listen to the poor or respect their wisdom and struggles.


The third book I finished was Megan McKenna’s This Will be Remembered of Her: Stories of Women Reshaping the World. Megan, a friend of mine, is a great story-teller and biblical interpreter. Here she combines stories or women, scripture, and tales from many cultures.


She recalls women, living and dead, from well known Dorothy Day and Aung Suu Kyi to others who deserve to be known, like Marguerite Barankitse of Burundi to Shirin Ebadi of Iran.


This is a book to meditate, to use as an examination of conscience. At the end of chapter 1, p. 15, Megan asks

And you — if you were to be remembered for just one gesture, one act of solidarity, one touch of kindness, one prophetic stance, one bit of human hope, one moment of mercy —what would you want to be remembered for?

The book I just finished was Ellen F. Davis’s Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible. Davis reads the Jewish scriptures with an eye on their agrarian orientation. Agrarianism is a movement, represented by people like Wendell Berry and even E.F. Schumacher, who see agriculture as essential to human livelihood – but not just any agriculture. Agriculture must respect people (especially the least in society), the land, and nature and seek ways to nurture these as lived in the culture of a people who live in a specific place.


Davis does an amazing re-reading many texts that highlight the importance of the preservation of farming practices and livelihoods that respect the land. Her hermeneutic is, as she mentions on page 3: “How do these texts view the relationship between humans (or Israelites in particular) and the material sources of life as an essential aspect of living in the presence of God?”


Her interpretations are challenging. On page 102 she writes:

Here we shall explore the theological premises and economic intentions of the system of tenure of arable land endorsed by the Bible, which differs from the one that prevails in the European Union, Canada, the United States, and Brazil…. It is the contrast between, on the one hand, a system whose chief aim is the subsistence of local farming communities and, on the other hand, a corporate system of land management and food production that has resulted in the steady and far-advanced impoverishment and dissolution of rural communities. The ideal shared by most biblical writers, in Torah, historical books, and the Prophets, is that arable land is covenanted by God to the people Israel…

As she later mentions, on page 107,

…The [biblical] notion that land possession is conditional upon care is itself profoundly challenging to all modern states, just as the biblical writers intended it to challenge the states they knew, including their own.

So too it challenges the grossly unequal distribution of the land here in Honduras and the efforts of political and economic elites to control land for their own benefit, as in Bajo Aguán.


It is a book that I will have to study a little more thoroughly since it is so rich in insights.


These books are not very easy reading — though Megan's is the easiest to read, but full of hard challenges — but they are helping me redefine how I live here, how I support the people here in their struggles, and how I seek to serve God’s Kingdom here.


1 comment:

phoenixwoman said...

I'm like you. I have started Gregorian Chant, The Imitation of Christ, Joan of Arc, and Come Sunday. Not that I read only books on religion. Very likely, Jon Stewart, Jimmy Carter, or Eric Boehlert will be on the list next.

I assume that Davis talks about the Jubilee, and the periodic return of lands to the poor, not practiced very enthusiastically, but certainly prescribed? One wonders what would happen if we had a lottery in which every year you had a chance of being made wealthy for a year, and an equal chance of having to live as a pauper.

--Charles